Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Why LOLs may soon swing elections

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

For some time political parties have been working to harness social media to help them win elections. The Obama campaign famously outspent the Romney campaign online by a factor of 10 to 1 ($47 million vs $4.7 million). Even its use of traditional media was tailored using the huge amount of digital information the campaign hoovered up from online sources.

As the New York Times (“Data You Can Believe In“) found:

“the campaign literally knew every single wavering voter in the country that it needed to persuade to vote for Obama, by name, address, race, sex and income. What’s more, he hinted, the campaign had figured out how to get its television advertisements in front of them with a previously inconceivable level of knowledge and accuracy.”

Yet, with the notable exception of the Obama campaign, contemporary political parties have been uniformly bad at building their online presence. Online startup 38Degrees has more campaigning “members” than any British political party including their Facebook likes.

To the fill the gap left by the professional, but ineffectual, online presence of the major political parties, third parties including trade unions and individuals have stepped in. Working often with minute budgets and turning out material that can cause embarrassment to the established parties, these third party actors are beginning to make an impact. is created “BY A HUMAN BEING WHO DOESN’T BELONG TO ANY POLITICAL PARTY BUT DOES GIVE A SHIT”. Sweary, blunt, highly simplified and pro-Labor the site went viral near instantly with over 1 million unique visitors in just 24 hours (with possibly up to 4% of total registered Australian voters viewing the site). Jesse Richardson, the site’s creator, had to issue a media statement re-iterating it was a personal project and nothing to do with his employers or the Australian Labor Party.

Meanwhile, in Germany, trade union IG Metall’s video implores voters not to believe the re-election of Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition is a done deal – through the medium of LOLs. A bolt-together of amusing Youtube clips spliced with a light political message, it’s amusing and effective. It works because on the face of it, the film is a spontaneous response to the direction of the election. The video opens with an unflattering image of Peer Steinbrueck of the Social Democrats (SPD) looking miserable, presumably after losing the election. No permission was sought from the SPD.

These LOL campaigns are often more effective than the efforts of the mainstream political parties. Only one SPD Youtube clip has just over 100,000 views on their channel, while the IG Metall clip has been viewed over 750,000 times – more than all the SPD’s official videos combined.

While Britain’s three main political parties limber up to the next election, it’s likely that the online political moment to go viral will be created by none of the above.

In Belarus, the freedom of the internet is at stake

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Europe’s last dictatorship is clamping down on online activism, with a new law effectively requiring everyone to be a state spy

As of this morning, the internet in Belarus got smaller. A draconian new law is in force that allows the authorities to prosecute internet cafes if their users visit any foreign sites without being “monitored” by the owner. All commercial activity online by businesses registered in Belarus is now illegal unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name. There are concerns that this gives Belarusian authorities the power to take the next step and criminalise Amazon and eBay’s operations unless they collaborate with the regime’s censorship and register there. The law effectively implements the privatisation of state censorship: everyone is required to be a state spy. Belarusians who allow friends to use their internet connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit. Some have tried to defend the law, stating all countries regulate the internet in some form – but the Belarusian banned list of websites contains all the leading opposition websites. The fine for visiting these sites is half a month’s wages for a single view.

The Arab spring has been a wake-up call to the world’s remaining despots. The internet allowed images of open dissent to disseminate instantly. As Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak found out, once you reach a critical mass of public protest you haven’t got long to board your private jet. It’s a lesson learned by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and Europe’s last dictator, and also by the Belarusian opposition.

Lukashenko attempted to destroy the political opposition after the rigged 2010 presidential elections. Seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested alongside thousands of political activists. The will of those detained was tested: there are allegations that presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich have been tortured while in prison. The opposition is yet to recover; many of its leading figures have fled to Lithuania and Poland.

Within this vacuum of leadership, the internet helped spur a civil society backlash. After the sentencing of the presidential candidates, a movement inspired by the Arab spring “The Revolution Via Social Networks” mushroomed into a wave of protests that brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal to Lukashenko. As the penal code had already criminalised spontaneous political protest with its requirements for pre-notification, the demonstrations were silent, with no slogans, no banners, no flags, no shouting, no swearing – just clapping.

“The Revolution Via Social Networks” (RSN) helped co-ordinate these protests online via VKontakte (the biggest rival to Facebook in Russia and Belarus with more than 135 million registered users). RSN now has more than 32,000 supporters.

RSN splits its four administrators between Minsk and Krakow to keep the page active even when the state blocks access to the page, or the country’s secret police (hauntingly still called the KGB) intimidate them.

The protests were so effective at associating clapping with dissent that the traditional 3 July independence day military parade was held without applause with only the brass bands of the military puncturing the silence. As lines of soldiers, trucks, tanks and special forces paraded past Lukashenko and his six-year-old son dressed in military uniform, those gathered waved flags in a crowd packed with plain-clothed agents ready to arrest anyone who dared clap or boo.

The internet has kept the pressure on the regime in other ways. Protesters photograph the KGB and post their pictures online in readiness for future trials against those who commit human rights violations. A Facebook group “Wanted criminals in civilian clothes”, blogs and all help to expose those complicit in the regime’s crimes. The web has also helped spread the stories of individuals who have faced brutality by the regime.

It’s this effectiveness that has made the internet a target for Lukashenko. The law enacted in July 2010 allowed the government to force Belarusian ISPs to block sites within 24 hours.

The new measures coming into force today merely build upon these restrictions. The official position of the Belarusian government from the operations and analysis centre of the presidential administration is: “The access of citizens to internet resources, including foreign ones, is not restricted in Belarus.” Yet, in reality the government blocks websites at will, especially during protests. Just after Christmas, the leading opposition website Charter 97 (which works closely with Index on Censorship) was hacked, its archive part-deleted and a defamatory post about jailed presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov published on the site. The site’s editor, Natalia Radzina, who has faced years of vile death and rape threats and escaped from Belarus after being placed in internal exile last year, says she has “no doubt” that the government was behind the hack. This is one of a series of attacks on Charter 97, which include co-ordinated DDOS (denial of service) attacks orchestrated by the KGB through an illegal botnet of up to 35,000 infected computers worldwide.

The regime has even darker methods of silencing its critics. In September 2010, I flew to Minsk to meet Belarusian civil society activists including the founder of the Charter 97 website, Oleg Bebenin. The day I landed he was found hung in his dacha, his leg broken, with his beloved son’s hammock wrapped around his neck. I spoke to his closest friends at his funeral including Andrei Sannikov and Natalia Radzina. No one believed he had committed suicide, all thought he had been killed by the state. Bebenin isn’t the only opposition figure to have died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances under Lukashenko’s rule, a chill on freedom of expression far more powerful than any changes in the law.

Today marks yet another low in Belarus’s miserable slide back to its Soviet past. Clapping in the street is now illegal. NGOs have been forced underground and their work criminalised.

Former presidential candidates languish in jail. The internet is the last free public space.

Lukashenko will do all he can to close down this freedom. In Europe, the battle has opened between the netizens of Belarus and its government. Who wins will be a matter of interest for us all.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 6 January.

Twitter, social media and Lewisham

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

Social media is allowing local government to respond to citizens in a more responsive and accurate manner.
It’s hard to underestimate how much technology can revolutionise the way that public services can be delivered.

One local resident in Lewisham spotted a zebra crossing on Hither Green Lane had one of its light’s covered. Instead of calling me, or writing to me, they tweeted a photo from their mobile of the covered light and asked me to investigate.

Twitter exchange on Hither Green Lane

Because I had a photo, Council Officers could show this evidence to our highways contractor, Conway. Who in turn, with the address, knew exactly what they needed to fix the problem. Within 3 days the light was fixed.

We can respond even quicker to litter and graffiti thanks to the Love Lewisham application. In 2002, it took two and a half days to clean up reported graffiti, now it takes on average half a day. And graffiti is down by 73 per cent. How? By trusting the public. People don’t want to live in an area blighted by litter, and they’re prepared to tell us when we’re not doing enough. So by giving every citizen with a smartphone the ability to report litter or graffiti to us, we’re able to plot where our teams need to go in a more joined-up way – saving time and energy. And as the smartphone app can also upload a photo of the offending detritus we can deal with the worst stuff first. And people really do seem to like taking responsibility for their home.

But we can also deliver services differently.

Hilary Renwick, our Head of Cultural Services, has told me:

We are acquiring two ‘digital shelves’ from Bloomsbury’s e books collection which include the Arden Shakespeare, specifically the ten plays that are on the GCSE National Curriculum and a collection entitled ‘Our Environment’ comprising ten books including The Hot Topic by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King. The project is sponsored by Google and run by Public Library Online.”

The Service will be launching a new App for I Phone and Android phones that will enable library card holders to search the library catalogue, reserve a book and interact with their borrower record.

Soon, we will be able to offer more and more of our collection on portable devices. We know that 60% of the workforce of Lewisham has to commute to work in the morning. If we can offer our library services on Kindles, or iPhones, we can ensure our libraries service is more used by more people.

Finally, we need to break open our datasets. We hoard too much information – data that could be used by local residents to challenge the way we run public services. By opening up data we will find ourselves open to serious scrutiny by voters. But – people want to help – and there’s huge added value in getting people to challenge our assertions. We used to spend a significant amount of money on consultants to guide our policy process. We’ve halved this in a year, and we’re going further (as I’ve been pushing in my role as Chair of the Audit Panel). Now, we need to embolden the ‘citizen consultant’ using our data to aid their analysis. In the same way the Freedom of Information Act has opened up local government in a spectacular way – access to data can be challenge us in a far more productive way.

Further reading / resources:

London’s datastore
Nigel Tyrell (Lewisham’s Head of Environment) has a great blog on Love Lewisham
Public data’s Desert Island challenge: which dataset would you pick?

London Riots showed the worst of the city, but also the best

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council


IT’S HIGHLY UNUSUAL to have widespread violence across a city, where the authorities have absolutely no idea of the root cause.

There’s no one to negotiate with, no community group to speak to, no leaders, no ideals to challenge: it’s just sporadic mob violence. My constituents have been shocked by its spread and unpredictability. St Stephen’s church just off the High Street has boarded up its windows, as have local pubs. On Tuesday our local branch of Barclays had a sign that ominously proclaimed: “This branch is closed until further notice”.

Social media and the London Riots

Twitter has become a dangerous tool: provocateurs are using it to spread rumours that the far-right National Front is going to march upon Lewisham to “reclaim the streets”. On Tuesday night panicked tweets exclaimed: “200 national front marching to Lewisham”. It wasn’t true. But in a highly diverse area where over 100 languages are spoken, rumours are enough to cause fear.

If you plot the London Riots against deprivation there’s a clear relationship: the violence mostly happened in poorer areas. There’s also a historic link between austerity and social unrest, according to a discussion document just published by the The Centre for Economic Policy Research. Yet, no one thinks the individuals who caused the violence were anything other than opportunists – some career criminals, others who saw a chance to loot.

The first before the courts included an organic chef, an opera house steward and a university student. There’s no political sentiment being expressed by the looters except for the downright stupid – such as the “I want my taxes back” looter in Clapham Junction which went viral.
‘People wanted to stand up’

Volunteers clean up London

This civil disorder has brought out the worst elements from our community. It’s thought that some gang members were behind the most extreme violence. But it has also brought out the best in Lewisham. People have genuinely wanted to stand up for their community. On Tuesday morning, unprompted, around 15 local people came down to the town centre on their way to work to help with the clean-up. Fantastic images of Londoners coming out onto the streets to clean up the mess have been seen across the globe. One American tweeted in response: “English people, WE’LL stop thinking you’re all quaint and proper as soon as YOU stop immediately cleaning up after your own riots.”

My constituents have inundated me asking me how they can help. This Saturday, local people will be gathering in the town centre for a ‘carrot mob’: armed only with shopping bags, we’re going to go and do our weekly shopping at the local market and at shops damaged by Monday’s violence. It’s a great way of putting money back into the pockets of those affected. It’s also a show of solidarity.

A culture of greed

London is a chaotic place. It’s survived terrorism, the Blitz, the Great Fire, civil war and revolts. Asymmetric violence for no cause has visibly shaken us – and we have to deal with complex issues that have created this situation including the culture of greed. The collapse of trust in our major institutions isn’t helping. In amongst much confusion, one thing is clear, the decent majority have to take an interest in their communities. And politicians have to be visible on the streets and listening.

This article was originally published at

Trade unions and social media

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Labour


Following on from my article in Forefront magazine on trade unions and social media, I’ve been advising Unions21 the leading think-tank, on how trade unions you use social media to improve their public image. You can read the publication ‘The Future for Union Image’ online.

As Director Dan Whittle says:

Unions have not had such a high media profile for years.

More than half the population backed the aims of the March 26th March for the Alternative according to YouGov – but a third of people still see unions as old fashioned.

So what can unions do? These are three of the ‘tough love’ ideas our contributors have put forward:

Perform a social media audit

Facebook, Twitter and blogs are ever more important sources of information – and as trust in government, public institutions and almost everything else declines, people increasingly rely on their friends or even celebrities for their news and opinions.

Mike Harris recommends unions should perform a social media audit to identify their most highly networked members and involve them in delivering their communications. High profile supporters can be used to attract new interest online and well crafted online ‘asks’ can be used to build support and membership.

Drop the jargon

Writer and trainer Paul Richards argues that trade unionism, like every other walk of life, has developed its own slang, jargon and insiders-only language, every bit as impenetrable as polari, doctors’ slang, cockney rhyming slang, computer hackers’ slang… He reminds us that talking about collective bargaining, constructive dismissal and transfers of undertakings is language impenetrable to most people and off-putting and alienating to many.

Please do contact me, for an informal consultation on how your union can improve its image using social media.

Harnessing Celebrity Support: an interview with Mike Harris

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Blog, Free expression

ifex mike harris

Harnessing Celebrity Support: an IFEX interview with Mike Harris

This was originally published as a briefing on campaigning for partner agencies of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange: The global network for free expression.

England’s libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee for seriously hampering free expression, and for good reason. Among other major issues, the legislation doesn’t put the burden of proof on claimants to show statements are indeed false; there is no cap on the amount one can sue for; and there is scant mention of the public interest in the legal text. It should come as no surprise that foreign corporations and businessmen choose to sue for libel in the United Kingdom (UK), where they’re likely to get a favourable result. The practice is so common it has its own moniker: “libel tourism.”

It should also come as no surprise that UK-based IFEX member Index on Censorship has launched an all-out war on the anti-free expression aspects of the legislation. With celebrities enlisted and Twitter employed as its most powerful weapon, the organisation teamed up with English PEN and Sense About Science to launch the Libel Reform Campaign in December 2009 (

Included among the campaigns supporters are comedians Stephen Fry and Shazia Mirza, fiction writer Monica Ali, physician and renowned columnist Dr. Ben Goldacre, and poet and novelist Sir Andrew Motion.

“Comedians understand freedom of expression, a lot of comedians use risqué comedy so it’s a very easy issue to get them interested in,” says Index on Censorship’s Michael Harris, the public affairs manager of the libel reform campaign. When looking for big names to get behind libel reform, the groups focused on those who were most likely to be affected by repressive libel legislation: writers, editors, artists, broadcasters and even scientists whose research could “libel” corporations.

Organisations should choose celebrities who are truly passionate about the cause, says Harris, but they should use their time strategically and be careful not to ask too many small favours. Instead, organisations should prioritise their promotional needs so that celebrities can focus on the big, important events.

“You need to feel it out, get an idea of how much time they have to give,” says Harris. “You don’t want to ask too much.”

Using Twitter as part of the campaign ensured that celebrities could have a big impact with a miniscule time investment. Big name supporters like Fry and others have sent tweets to their followers that encouraged them to go to the libel reform website, attend fundraising events and sign the libel reform petition. By linking to reports or columns, the celebrity tweeters can also educate their fans about the issue. Through piggy-backing on the fan base of celebrity twitter accounts, the campaign has managed to attract around 50,000 supporters, a level of public support that wouldn’t have been possible without the social networking tool, says Harris.

Not only can Twitter reach hundreds of thousands in a matter of seconds, it isn’t confined by geography. “At our campaign events, we’ve spoken to people from all over the country,” says Harris. “A lot of the times we’ve been quite London-centric in our campaigns but with Twitter, users can be anywhere in the world.”

Twitter has its drawbacks, however. People receiving tweets are often on the go and may not be able to concentrate on much more than a single tweet’s 140-character limit. If your organisation needs people to devote their time and attention by, for example, writing a letter or attending parliament, Twitter may not be the best promotional tool. Instead, Harris says, “Twitter is very good at getting people to do a single action – click here, think about this, do this.”

Harris also underlines the importance of hosting events where tweeters, bloggers and technophobe free-expression advocates alike can meet in person. When fellow supporters meet each other, they become further galvanised and are more likely to work together on the web. “People will pass on messages far more readily if they have that real, social connection with the person who is posting something,” says Harris. Recognising this, the campaign hosted a series of “pub discussions” that brought together long-time free expression activists, tweeters and new recruits. “People get a stronger emotional involvement with the campaign when they meet other advocates,” says Harris.

To compensate for Twitter’s disproportionate focus on the young and tech-savvy, the campaign also employed different methods to reach out to non-tweeters. Celebrities were asked to publish opinion articles in major newspapers that outlined the necessity of libel reform (sometimes these columns were ghost-written by the organisation). Public figures on board with the campaign talked about libel reform in their blogs, on the radio and on TV. The campaign also held several events, including a panel discussion on how the laws impact documentary films, and a star-studded comedy evening that raised £15,000 pounds (approx. US$23,000).

Thanks in no small part to the work of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, England’s three major political parties now support libel reform, and in early April, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the government would change the libel laws. Among other reforms, he promised that claimants can’t argue that damages have been “multiplied” when a statement is re-published on websites, blogs and picked up by other publications; procedural changes will address the “libel tourism” problem and action will be taken to somewhat reduce the heavy legal cost on defendants. Many more reforms are required to ensure England’s legislation no longer puts free expression rights in jeopardy at home and abroad, but these recent developments mark major progress. Look out those hoping to silence detractors in London courts: comedians, activists, writers and tweeters aren’t about to back down.